Amid the protests that roared into the streets across the United States — and the world — following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, calls to reform, defund, or outright abolish police departments have started to gain momentum.
Already in Minneapolis, the city council has vowed to dismantle its police department and create a new model for public safety. It's an idea that may have seemed shocking just weeks ago, but is now a growing sentiment being debated alongside other ideas of reforming current departments, or defunding them.
We reached out to three UNLV professors to gain perspective on the moment:
Javon Johnson, director of African American and African Diaspora studies, has taught on the subject of police abolishment in some of his topical courses in the program. He also has advocated for the abolition of police departments in Northern California.
Bill Sousa, director of the UNLV Center for Crime and Justice Policy and a criminal justice professor, examines the defund movement and considers the impact of different methods of policing.
Tyler D. Parry, an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora studies, is a historian who has studied the use of canine units in policing, how those units have had their roots in the persecution of indigenous people by Spanish conquistadors and later in slave patrols, and how injuries sustained by police dogs disproportionately fall on black and Latino Americans.
Parry on the historical roots of police abolishment:
Police abolition is inspired by the prison abolition movement. What a number of people, [activist and academic] Angela Davis among them, were in favor of is abolishing the prison-industrial complex. That was an approach to what we would call transformative justice. The logical outgrowth of that, many people will say, is if we don't believe the prison system has any value in society, does a police system that data suggests is either too violent or not particularly effective when they need to be, also need to exist?
Sousa, on the meaning of defunding the police:
Most of the time when there's the call for defunding the police, they're not referring to completely dismantling police departments. It's a reference to analyzing police budgets and in many cases, reducing police budgets and using that funding for schools or social programs or mental health services, homeless outreach, youth programs and these types of things.
Johnson, on advocating for abolishing police departments over defunding or reforming them:
Reform measures have failed miserably. If you think about the major reform measures, police cameras don't always work. We know for a fact that police often turn them off and turn them on at their leisure. More rules cannot, by definition, work for an organization that in many ways have a ridiculous amount of autonomy as to whether or not they'll operate within those rules. We also know that our police are trained by the same people that often train the military and they are often taught that anything can go bad at any given moment. And because of that, you have a kind of police unit that often comes to situations on edge.
We know that the overwhelming majority of calls that police get are actually nonviolent calls. And even the ones that are violent, a lot of them are actually non-lethally violent. One of the major reasons people call is for mental health services. We find money for police, but no money to drastically increase mental health services.
One of the things [we could create] would be an emergency mental health team that is called out to go and deal with people with mental health needs. Another thing would be unarmed community patrols. Another thing would be crisis teams, to come and mitigate crimes, or what would conceivably be a crime.
Let us never forget that George Floyd was killed for a counterfeit $20 bill. Right before him, Eric Garner was killed for selling loose cigarettes. Mike Brown was alleged to have stolen gum. All of which cannot be considered crimes that are even remotely near capital punishment, all of which are usually crimes that are looked the other way against in white neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods are overpoliced, which then creates these statistics that they somehow commit more crime because we're looking harder there.
Parry, on how society would deal with violent offenders, crimes in progress, or other similar issues if police departments are disbanded:
[I am] perfectly fine with a post-police world, but there has to be some sort of strategy in place, empirical data, some sort of evidence-driven studies. I am not grounded enough in the post-police world that's envisioned to confirm that I'm on board with that.
The inherent problem is maybe two-fold. The United States is actually a pretty violent country. It's the most well-armed country. If we defund the police, there's a lot of people who have ill intentions and have a lot of guns, and we've seen them march on state capitals to protest the coronavirus lockdowns, and what if there is no force able to meet them blow-for-blow? Do they just run roughshod over everyone else? In order to convince those who express doubts about abolishing or defunding the police, the issue of private citizens brandishing semi-automatic rifles, like those recently seen in the Michigan protests, would need to be addressed.
And then the second problem is, does this then mean that private security forces will be elevated, like hired guns or militias, that will be used to control certain neighborhoods? I think addressing issues of structural inequality is probably the best place to start when considering this area of inquiry. But I don't really have an answer yet as to what is done after the fact, though I do legitimize people's questions regarding that within our particular society, one that has so many weapons and has so many people who seem willing to be violent, there's a case to be made that some form of security, particularly for the most vulnerable among us, does need to be put into place. The issue, however, is that the police state as we know it, is not sufficiently protecting those particular communities.
Sousa, on the roles police have traditionally played and whether they're currently being asked to do too much:
If we go way back to when modern police departments were first created in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the mid-to-late 1800s, police provided a very wide range of services. They didn't just manage crime, but they managed all types of a disorder. They maintained the streets, they responded to fires, they found work for newly arrived immigrants. They provided a huge range of services.
The problem was that standards for training and recruitment back then were really horrendous, so they were doing many things but they weren't doing them terribly well at all. In the early-to-mid 1900s, there was this reorientation around the function of police, where they went from providing this wide range of services to being professional law enforcement. So "police" became synonymous with law enforcement and the job became responding to calls for service for serious crime.
The problem with that model as we learned in the 1940s to 60s, is that police did not pay much attention to disorderly offenses and a lot of services that citizens believed were important. Crime began going up, and citizens felt that police became very distant. That's what led to the more recent model of policing, which is referred to as the community era, where you see police becoming much more proactive.
What we know from the last 30 years of research is that if you want to manage crime and other problems in communities, police need the ability to be proactive. Some people are concerned about that because proactive policing involves a high degree of discretion on the part of the officers.
Johnson on what the path to police abolition might be:
We need to have the conversation so we can actually think through these together. I do think it will take time. I do think some cities will try and do it quicker than others. And I think we'll learn from that.
We know for a fact that fair access to the education and labor market will result in less crime. The more educated you are, the more access you have to jobs, the more unwilling you are to commit crime. Crime is not usually done by people who just love to do crime.
Johnson on the biggest political obstacle to trying police abolishment:
Anti-blackness. It boils down to that. This idea that black people are somehow more criminal and more prone to criminalization. You have this logic that no amount of community investment would help black people. That's rooted in racism — that we're more prone to criminalization and therefore deserve control.
In the crack epidemic, we put people in jail for decades, destroyed families and black communities. At the height of the meth epidemic, that statistically affected white people, we are talking about funding treatment centers. It points to the fact that we have structural impediments around race that do not allow us to imagine how we serve black people and black communities.
I am someone that says let's look at the smartest researchwe have and act accordingly. We know that police don't offer a real deterrent to crime. So why are we continually investing billions of dollars?
Sousa, on reducing police responsibilities:
You're not really seeing police departments that have fully embraced the community model and then gone back to a strictly law enforcement model. But this brings up another issue: we have to remember that for communities to function properly, there has to be at least a minimal level of order that's being maintained.
For example, you can send social service providers into homeless camps, but if there are drug dealers who are keeping the homeless addicted who are also in those areas, social service providers are very, very limited in what they can do to get the drug dealers to leave. They can ask them to leave, but they probably won't. What you need is an entity like the police who have a different type of authority. They can get the drug dealers to leave, which would allow the social service providers to then come in and do that work.
What's getting tied up in all of this when you hear "defund the police" is that it can just mean so many different things. It could be the call to only have police respond to 911 calls for service. I think that would be an enormously bad idea. In everything that we know based on the last 30 or 40 years of research is that when police are reactive, they're not managing community problems terribly well at all.
Johnson on the Minneapolis city council's pledge to dismantle their police department:
It's going to be a fantastic case study for those of us who geek out over this thing. My assumption is that we'll see similar things that happen to moneyed white neighborhoods. I live in a mostly white suburb of Las Vegas; I don't see police when I'm in my neighborhood. And it's not that white neighborhoods don't [have] crimes. It's actually quite the opposite. But they're not over-policed for the small crimes.
It's hard to project this stuff, but I think most importantly, [Minneapololis] will offer us a very real-time case study about if this is impossible.